How to End the War in Iraq: Vietnam Inspires 5 Historians

May 25th, 2007 - by admin

Stewart M. Powell / San Francisco Chroncile – 2007-05-25 22:43:08

WASHINGTON (May 13, 2007) — With the nation eager for a way to end the war in Iraq, five historians of the Vietnam War have advice on how to end US involvement in Iraq, based on their research into the conclusion of the US role in Southeast Asia.

The historians don’t agree on the next steps. Their advice ranges from immediate withdrawal and partition of Iraq to continuing an open-ended presence of almost 150,000 US combat troops to buy time to bolster Iraqi leaders and strengthen Iraqi armed forces.

Here’s what they said in interviews with Hearst Newspapers:

Withdraw Now
Stanley A. Karnow
Karnow is a veteran
Time-Life journalist who covered US combat in Vietnam from 1959 and wrote “Vietnam: A History.”

The war in Iraq is “unwinnable,” says Karnow, so the United States should orchestrate the partition of Iraq among rival Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, set a deadline for US troop withdrawal and begin phased withdrawals immediately.

US forces cannot prevail because they face dogged adversaries in Iraq every bit as determined as enemies in Vietnam that were “prepared to take unlimited losses to the point that you could never break their morale no matter how many we killed,” Karnow says. “In the end they broke our morale and we got out.”

Nor can the United States look to a negotiated withdrawal. The United States faces a divided, multifaceted enemy — a reality that undercuts any possibility for negotiations.

US negotiators in Vietnam faced “an enemy that was cohesive — all communists, all working for Hanoi, all working to unify Vietnam,” Karnow says.

He adds that the United States should provide safe haven for frightened Iraqi refugees comparable to the sanctuary provided some Vietnamese refugees after US withdrawal in 1975.

Be Wary of Withdrawing
Mark Moyar
Moyar is a scholar at the US Marine Corps University at Quantico, Va., who wrote “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954-1965.”

Moyar urges actions in Iraq to “improve the situation short of having to withdraw completely” because “the price of withdrawal from Iraq would be very high.”

Moyar suggests:

— Stepped-up US training and vetting of Iraqi military commanders to improve combat unit operations.

— Boosting reliance on Iraq’s traditional tribal sheikhs — a tactic that has paid off for Marines trying to pacify restive Anbar province.

— Finding and supporting Iraq’s equivalent of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a hard-nosed nationalist leader in the 1950s and early 1960s who used force to crush rivals. (Diem died in a 1963 coup backed by the CIA during the Kennedy administration.)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is showing only “mixed results” with his leadership, Moyar says.

“We need to find the right person in Iraq to make the tough decisions and not try to micromanage that person,” Moyar says. “National leadership is critical to long-term success.”

Negotiate with Neighbors
Robert K. Brigham
Brigham is a professor of history and international relations at Vassar College and author of “Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy” and “Is Iraq Another Vietnam?”

President Bush should take a lesson from Vietnam and bring in other nations to help the United States extricate combat troops from Iraq, Brigham says.

Specifically, Bush should initiate intensive discussions with Iraq’s neighbors led by Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to forge a “new regional order” that would ease Iraq’s sectarian warfare and provide a “decent interval” of tranquility for US withdrawal.

The approach recalls arrangements that President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger struck with China and the Soviet Union to offer detente with the United States in return for their agreement to restrain North Vietnam long enough to permit withdrawal of US combat troops from South Vietnam.

“The US exit from Vietnam was classic 19th century diplomacy,” Brigham says, referring to the trade-offs achieved with China and the Soviet Union. “Kissinger lost South Vietnam but was able to claim ‘peace with honor’ by achieving a greater new world order.”

Such bold realpolitik will work in Iraq only if neighboring nations are able to persuade insurgents and sectarian militias to quell the bloodshed long enough to stabilize the Iraqi government and permit US troops to withdraw.

“People inside Washington clearly understand that there has got to be a political solution based on regional involvement in order to leave Iraq,” he maintains.

Map an Orderly Departure
Larry Berman
Berman is a political scientist at UC Davis who wrote “No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam,” “Foreign Military Intervention: The Dynamics of Protracted Conflict” and “Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam.”

Faced with US public opposition to the war in Iraq, Bush should plan an orderly withdrawal for troops and US civilians — as well as for potential Iraqi refugees with ties to the United States.

“We should avoid doing what we did in Vietnam, which was to simply pull the plug on an innocent people we had promised to defend,” Berman says. “We should be working now to avoid repeating the darkest day in American history.”

Barely 900,000 South Vietnamese made it out of the country during and after the North Vietnamese takeover, leaving behind about 2 million who wanted to leave, Berman said.

Communist invaders ordered an estimated 1 million South Vietnamese into notorious “re-education camps,” where an estimated 56,000 died.

Berman decries any effort to negotiate the kind of “decent interval” that allowed US withdrawal from Vietnam, calling the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 “nothing more than a suicide pact targeting South Vietnam.”

Berman adds: “Everyone has turned against the Iraq war, but they also realize you can’t just pick up and get out without consequences. We have sown the seeds of a repeat of history in Iraq, as tragic as that sounds.”

Recognize Lost Public Support
Gideon Rose
Rose is managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a former staffer on the White House National Security Council during the Clinton presidency. He is researching a book on how US wars come to an end.

“The real lesson from Vietnam is that once you lose popular support for a war, the best you can hope to do is to slow the slide,” says Rose. “It is very, very hard to recoup the lost support.”

With domestic public opinion against him and developments in Iraq beyond US control, Bush has “lost the ability to succeed in Iraq, but he’s unwilling to accept the war as lost,” Rose adds. “So he’s hunkering down and waiting to hand off the problem to the next president.”

Rose says history shows that it has taken a change in US leadership to end protracted, unpopular US wars.

President Dwight Eisenhower took over from Harry Truman in 1953 and negotiated an armistice with North Korea within six months. President Richard Nixon took over from Lyndon Johnson in 1969 and negotiated a cease-fire and troop withdrawal by January 1973.

“US withdrawal (from Iraq) is inevitable,” Rose said. “The only thing that Bush can do now is to recognize the situation and cut his losses before he takes Republicans in Congress down with him.”

The invasion and occupation of Iraq that began 50 months ago have claimed the lives of at least 3,383 US soldiers, wounded at least 24,245 others and cost taxpayers some $400 billion.

The US intervention in Vietnam that began with military advisers in the 1950s and ended in 1975 with US Marine embassy guards and diplomats boarding helicopters atop the US embassy in Saigon claimed the lives of at least 58,195 soldiers, wounded at least 365,000 others and cost taxpayers about $650 billion in current dollars.

Stewart M. Powell is the White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail him at or

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

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